Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Thomas P. Meyer Prisoner of war

Inscription. New Testament. New York: American Bible Society, 1863.

With each new post I write for the Manifold Greatness blog, I am struck anew by the long reach of the King James Bible and how much history was covered by just our one exhibition. Take, for example, the 1863 King James New Testament loaned by the American Bible Society for the Folger exhibition. When images of the Bible first arrived at the Folger, we were all struck by the book’s inscription:

Presented by the Sanitary
Commission, through
the rebel authorities at
Richmond, Feb. – 1864
Belle Island
Richmond, Va.
Thomas P. Meyer
Prisoner of war

This extraordinary copy dates back to the American Civil War, when it was given to a Union prisoner of war named Meyer “through the rebel authorities” by the United States Sanitary Commission, an organization that provided relief to Union soldiers. Wanting to learn more, I began reading about the prison on Belle Isle and ended up on a website that had a transcription of the diary of Zelotes A. Musgrave, a Union prisoner of war from Ohio, who spent about five months in the prison. Spare, though compelling, daily entries such as “Belle Island. The body lice are fat.” provide a captivating glimpse of the harsh conditions at Belle Isle. At one point Musgrave receives a blanket from “our government, as rather the Christian Commission,” a moment of comfort reminiscent of the Sanitary Commission’s gift of the New Testament to Thomas P. Meyer.

Reading through Musgrave’s diary also brought back memories of what I had learned about the Civil War history of my own hometown. I grew up in Elmira, New York, which was the site of a rather brutal Union prison. I thought about how the words of the King James translation have brought relief to many in need. A Confederate prisoner of war in Elmira likely read the same Biblical passages as a Union prisoner of war at Belle Isle (see Hannibal Hamlin’s earlier post on the Civil War)—just as a young man sailing “beyond the seas” sought comfort in the Psalms and Martin Luther King inspired millions with verses such as Amos 5:24.

In the planning stages of the Manifold Greatness exhibition, Hannibal and I agreed that we wanted to show the human side of the history of the King James Bible. Meyer’s Civil War New Testament is a powerful example and we are thankful to the American Bible Society for allowing it to be a part of our exhibition.

Steven Galbraith, Curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at Rochester Institute of Technology, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, open through Monday, January 16.

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